Mind Your Ps and Qs

We were sitting in a rural English pub enjoying a few pints when John advised us to “mind our Ps and Qs.” John was our coach driver on our three-week journey. He was our ambassador to all things English and became a surrogate dad. A few of us had heard "minding our Ps and Qs" before, but it is not exactly part of the American vernacular. It’s something a mom or teacher would occasionally say if they wanted a kid to mind their manners. So we gathered that he was telling us to behave ourselves, English-style.

John explained to us that the phrase originated in a pub much like the one we were enjoying. Ps and Qs referred to the pints and quarts customers were served. If a customer was rowdy after a few too many drinks, he was told to mind his Ps and Qs. While we were more likely to be drinking the pints and half-pints of modern times (although I’m sure a number of my classmates could have easily undertaken a quart of Strongbow or Blackthorn), John was indeed telling us to keep ourselves in check.

There are actually a number of theories on this quaint little phrase, and no one can be sure which exactly is true. “Mind your Ps and Qs” has been in use since the 17th or 18th century (at least 1779, when it was first recorded),1, 7 but its true meaning is as mysterious as its origin.

Pints and Quarts

John’s pub theory of Ps and Qs is the most popular one among speculators. Pubs did indeed serve ale in pints and quarts. The drinker’s tab would be kept on a chalkboard, where the barkeep would make a mark for each pint or quart that the customer drank. A dishonest pub keeper could easily take advantage of this tally system to pad his evening’s income. The larger quart was more expensive than a pint, and a bartender could mark down a quart even if he had only served a pint. Customers who were not careful might end up paying for more than they actually drank. Telling someone to mind their Ps and Qs was warning them to keep an eye on their server to avoid paying for drinks they did not have.

It also meant that customers should watch their alcohol intake and, in turn, their behavior. The more they drank, the less able they would be to keep tabs on what they drank, making them easy targets. Along these lines, an unruly customer might also be told to mind his Ps and Qs. Telling someone to mind their Ps and Qs was the appropriate way to tell them they had had too much to drink. It was also bartender-speak for "don’t forget to pay your bill before you stumble out of here."

Ahoy, Matey!4

A derivative of the Pints and Quarts theory involves the sailors that were frequent visitors at pubs as they stopped at ports over the island. Since the sailors would be in town for several days at a time, the pub keeper would run a tab for the duration of their stay. To ensure payment, though, the ship’s captain often paid this tab directly out of the sailor’s pay. This was another golden opportunity for the bar owner to earn himself a few pounds, charging for extra drinks. If a sailor were particularly unlucky, his captain would be in on the scheme. It was not uncommon for a captain to take a share of this extra pay from the pub keeper. A sailor who did not carefully mind his Ps and Qs might leave port with empty pockets.

Alphabet Mix-Up

Print Shop: To understand this theory, one has to think back to before the computer age. When printing presses and the like were used, printed material had to be laid out letter by letter (word by word in more recent times) in a print shop. Essentially there was a metal stamp, if you will, for each letter that needed to be printed. These stamps (type slugs, metal type or type-set to be more precise) had to be a reverse image so that they would appear correctly when inked onto the paper. The type-set for lower case Ps and Qs are essentially mirror images of each other. A printer or typesetter had to look at all the material in reverse as he was working on it, and the reverse images of lower case p and q could be easily confused. In this case, minding your Ps and Qs was advice to a printer to be careful while he worked and not mix up the two letters.

School Days: The similarities of lower case p and q can also be a problem with penmanship. Children often have difficulty recognizing the difference between the two lower case letters when first learning to read and write. Teachers would tell their pupils to mind their Ps and Qs, not to confuse the two letters. Over time it became a more general reminder from the teacher to be careful and attentive in schoolwork.5, 6

These theories both seem fairly plausible, although it is hard to say for sure if they are more accurate than the pub theories. The biggest hole with these theories is why p and q were chosen when b and d propose the same problem. It is probable that the teaching theory is newer than the pub theory, since it not recorded until approximately 1820 or 1830, approximately 50 years later than “mind your Ps and Qs” was first recorded.1, 7

Prime Quality

Another Ps and Qs theory relates to the English term "prime quality" and its abbrevation (PQ). Prime quality means the finest or the best, to achieve or ensure high quality.6 Dating back to the 17th century, the phrase was simply “P and Q” and would be written out as “pee and kew.” While prime quality is an accepted phrase that has been cited in several sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary,1 there appears to be little evidence that this is the source of “minding your Ps and Qs.” There is no information on how the phrase would have evolved from simply “pee and kew” into “minding your Ps and Qs.” Also, there is no explanation as to how a phrase referring to quality standards would come to be an admonishment to behave properly, which is what the phrase has come to mean. Prime quality, though, remains a fairly popular theory on the source of this expression.

The Hairy Truth

There are also variations on a lesser-known theory on Ps and Qs referring to old-fashioned ponytails and fabric frequently used to make clothing. The first takes us back to the sailors, who wore pea coats made of pea cloth (the “P”). Their hair was worn in a ponytail, or queue (the “Q”). These ponytails were often dipped in tar (no one gives an explanation for this action, however). Young sailors were advised to mind their Ps and Qs, which meant not getting any of the tar from their freshly dipped queue on their pea coats.1, 5

The aristocrats were a little fancier about their ponytails. Their queues were the wigs they commonly wore, which, of course, had ponytails. A young aristocrat minded his Ps and Qs by not getting any wig powder (presumably white) on his jacket, also made of pea cloth.5 If the young gentleman was behaving in accordance with his stature, then he would be less likely to muss up his clothing.

An Unlikely Story

As with any research, there are a few unusual theories out there. Minding your Ps and Qs is no exception, and some unlikely, if not amusing, theories can be found on the phrase’s origin. Below, in no particular order, are the more obscure explanations for minding your Ps and Qs.

Please and thank you:1, 4 Mind your Ps and Qs is thought to be an abbreviation for saying please and thank you, most likely used by children. Apparently this meaning can be found in several dictionaries. But it seems a rather large leap to turn “thank you” into “Q.” More than likely, this evolved from the general good behavior meaning for of “minding your Ps and Qs.”

Dancing in France:1 Ps and Qs could be a French dance teacher’s instructions to perform pieds and queues properly. Only one source even mentions this explanation, and even the author states that this one is “too far-fetched to be credible.”

Pease Kyuse Me:3 Again only one source had a brief mention of this theory. Apparently mind your Ps and Qs came from the hobby of coin collecting. To clean old coins that could be easily damaged, they had to be frazed. The coin was immersed into the liquid “pease” and then into another liquid called “kyuse.” If the order of these baths were reversed, it could damage the coin. To borrow directly from my source: “`Be sure to mind your pease and kyuse’—to fraze a coin.”

Hair Peace:6 As has already been discussed, the genteel folk were directed to mind their Ps and Qs, because they would tousle their wigs if they did not behave in accordance with their stature. One source claims that the original expression was in fact, “mind your toupees and your queues.” But even the author of the site is skeptical about this one, and admittedly it is rather unbelievable.

And The Winner Is...

With a phrase that has little documentation, it is rather hard to distinguish what the truth is here. It doesn't help that the phrase has been out of use in recent decades, especially in the U.S. But it was at one point a commonly used phrase. That fact that it was common is a good indication of which explanations are more likely to be the real origin of Ps and Qs.

The letter mix-ups, specifically the school version, are very plausible. Certainly most people spent their early days in a classroom learning the three Rs. Prime quality also seems reasonable, although I am not convinced an industry-related phrase would work its way into common culture. Both, however, are two of the more prominent theories.

The most widely believed of the theories, though, are the variations of the pints and quarts explanations. Certainly pubs have always been a part of many people's lives, and one can easily see how a reference to pints and quarts would become a part of common speech. I personally subscribe to the pints and quarts theory.

Admittedly, though, I'm a little biased...having learned to mind my Ps and Qs from my favorite Englishman.

This writeup was brought to you by the letters P and Q.

1. Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/psandqs.htm

2. Take Our Word For It. http://www.takeourword.com/Issue053.html

3. Todd Rubin, Joanne. Ye Old English Sayings. http://www.rootsweb.com/~genepool/sayings.htm

4. Moreland, Chuck. Origin of Phrases. http://members.aol.com/MorelandC/HaveOrigins.htm

5. Morris, Evan. The Word Detective on the Web. http://www.word-detective.com/back-f.html

6. Lovatt, Christie. Lovatts: Crossword Trivia: Words and Phrases. http://www.lovatts.com.au/WEB_section/trivia/Triv_wher_28.htm

7. Wilton, David. Useless Knowledge.com: Word and Phrase Origins. http://www.uselessknowledge.com/word/pq.shtml

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